What it means to be twenty-something

By Brandon Smith

As a 20-something, I should understand the natural order of things: I go to college, graduate, get a job, start a family and grow up. But it all seems so ambiguous to me, and according to Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., this is because I am living in a psychological stage he has termed

“emerging adulthood.”

I am almost 23 and am facing at least one more year of school to get my undergraduate degree. Most of my friends have left school with the idea that the financial strain wasn’t worth it or have gone on to graduate school for lack of better options, or are living my greatest fear of all—graduating only to move back home and work a

low-wage job.

These are the prospects we all have to live with. Growing up is scary, and it seems to be getting harder to do. Not to mention that as a society, we cannot come to terms with what it actually means to be an adult. I will be able to stay on my parents’ health insurance until I am 26. I was able to vote at 18 but could not drink until 21. I was allowed to go to war at 18 but cannot rent a car until I’m 24 (depending on the state). Why do 20-somethings live in such a gray zone?

The 20s are a critical part of human development. We are facing decisions that will shape the rest of our lives. Without proper guidance, our choices can easily lead us down a road of addiction and excess, or simply turn us into unproductive members of society.

Figuring out what to study and later practice professionally, volunteering, completing internships, maintaining our health, becoming financially independent, finding someone to fall in love with, following dreams and living passionately and optimistically are extremely important parts of our lives. We do all of these things while dealing with anxiety, stress, fear of failing and uncertainty of the future. When is there time to just enjoy life?

Before age 18, we generally have very little responsibility, and if we haven’t accepted responsibility for ourselves by the time we’re in our 30s, then there may be no hope. We aren’t children anymore, but we’re not quite adults, either.

There are societal consequences in defining our age group as a developmental stage. Science writer Robin Marantz Henig points out in her New York Times article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” that when children were slaving away in dangerous factories in the early part of the 20th century, the psychological community came together and defined what is now known as “adolescence.” This helped put child labor laws into practice, got kids out of factories and started lumping them into age groups. Our education system now operates entirely on this notion—preschools, middle schools and high schools are all in place to correspond to stages

of development.

What sort of exemptions or benefits will we get by defining 18—29-year-olds as an age group? As “not quite adults,” what things might we deserve? I, for one, applaud President Obama for letting me make trips to the hospital under my parent’s health insurance because there is no way I can afford a health care plan. Maybe he can also help me with these pesky student loans I’ve accrued in the name of becoming a contributing intellectual partner in

this country.

There is another issue with defining the half-cooked noodles that we are: Our condition is

not universal. It is easy to see that the majority of people in the world are not experiencing the strange lag in growing up that those of us living in the developed world get to enjoy.

Most people are forced to grow up very quickly. Poor financial situations mostly contribute to this,

and if we pay any attention to the world, it’s hard to miss the fact that a lot of people live in some pretty

crappy conditions.

Regardless of the scientific semantics of defining stages of psychological development, those of us in our 20s know we are different. We are now acquiring more formal knowledge than we ever have in

our lives.

We are our parents’ financial burden, we are full of life and we are self-actualizing. And though uncertain of it, we are mostly prepared to take on the future. As 20-somethings, we are finding out what it means to be human and what it means to contribute to the world, both physically and spiritually. If our age group is not categorized and thus exempt from the strains of adulthood, well, that’s OK. We are not quite adults, but we are certainly getting there.